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Getting Burned (Part One)

“Lawrence B. Salander was arrested for the second time in four months for his role in what Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called the biggest art fraud in New York history.”

–Philip Boroff and Lindsay Pollock, Bloomberg.org, July 2009

“At exactly what point Larry Salander may have crossed the line and begun to deceive his clients, as they allege, is hard to say for certain, but by the end of 2004, there were signs of trouble.”

–The Art of the Steal by Suzanna Andrews, Portfolio.com, April 2008.

I knew Larry Salander was trouble years before others began to have suspicions about his credibility. I fired Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in 1989 when they refused to make a deal that would benefit my employer Brenda Kuhn, the daughter of American modernist Walt Kuhn (1877-1949). There were previous opportunities to cancel the contract between Salander and Brenda, and pursue justice due to perceived fraudulent sales of artworks, but appealing to a jury for satisfaction never entered my mind. I didn’t talk to prosecutors. Larry Salander wasn’t the only art dealer who had pissed me off, then walked away from the heat of my anger and the judgment of a jury. I’d been there and done that. I was a habitual defender of Brenda Kuhn.

In 1983, I was representing the Estate of Walt Kuhn during contract negotiations with Lawrence Fleischman, president of Kennedy Galleries. When Fleischman failed to honor his word, I decided it was time to end the long relationship between Kennedy Galleries and Brenda Kuhn. I advised Brenda to cancel the contract. We held discussions with a few gallery owners based in New York, considered the various offers, then selected Larry Salander as the new dealer of artworks by Walt Kuhn. I realized right away that Larry was a hustler, but didn’t know he was a crook until after I helped Brenda climb out of the Kennedy Galleries skillet, and into the fire that was Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. For more than four years, until 1989, Brenda did earn a lot of money. Yet, in the end, the Estate of Walt Kuhn got burned. Perhaps the current crop of alleged victims also harbored doubts about Larry Salander, but held back any accusations until friends became adversaries and profits had turned to ashes.

The trial of Larry Salander will be a media circus, a Technicolor self-portrait of the defendant — framed, in gilt — dramatized in a New York courtroom designed to look like a Hollywood movie version of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The participants will tell their stories to an audience of twelve critics, hoping for good reviews. The proceedings will feature a Salander portraying a Gecko, and an actor (Robert DiNero, plaintiff, and former client of Salander-O”Reilly Galleries) performing in the witness chair, repeatedly snarling “You talkin’ to me” in response to questions by defense attorneys. If Walt Kuhn was still alive, he would be the appropriate choice for courtroom artist: Kuhn loved painting clowns.

My stories about the art world during the decade of greed (1980’s) read like the plot of a B-movie Film Noir. They are included in a book manuscript written in 2002, when I was living in Macedonia during the coldest winter on record in that small Balkan republic. The manuscript was promptly placed on a shelf, unread and unpublished, and I continued on with the my new career as a war reporter. The only landscapes I cared about were the ones I photographed, from Baghdad to Bosnia to Kosovo. I was thousands of miles, and years removed, from the War of Art. I stayed away from the dangerous streets of New York, and ignored news stories about predatory art dealers and the scorched-earth tactics they practice. If I had suspected that Larry Salander was preying on other victims, publishing my stories earlier might have helped many people avoid the pain of losing friends and money, and the suffering of courtroom appearances and lawyer’s bills.

Five excerpts from the manuscript have been published on Counterpunch, but only one includes any mention of the art world. It is the story about how and when I met Brenda Kuhn, and what was happening to her in the State of Maine. The short version: I was riding horseback, meandering north from Maryland. Brenda Kuhn was an elderly and disabled woman living in squalor at her home in Cape Neddick Park. Brenda was being used and abused. We met in July 1979, one week after I arrived — saddle sore — in the Pine Tree State. She asked for my help and, except for two extended horseback rides, I worked for Brenda until she died in 1993. I knew nothing about the business (or pleasure) of art when I agreed to work for Brenda, but I studied hard, learning on the job as director of the Walt Kuhn Gallery at Cape Neddick Park.

More than four years would pass before I was ready to jump into the fire.

* * *

”I then fixed my sights on the people wearing suits – Brenda’s lawyer, banker and art dealer – who not only ignored the abuse but also profited from it. They were the real bad guys. I got angry with the people who abused Brenda at her Park; I got ugly with the people who allowed it to happen.”

Riding to Maine by JAMES T. PHILLIPS, Counterpunch.org, September 2002

Robert Renwick was the trust officer at Maine National Bank responsible for managing Brenda Kuhn’s financial affairs in 1983. I had fired Bob’s boss (the previous bank representative) when I arrived in Maine in 1979. Bob and I worked together for four years, his task that of a brakeman, always trying to slow me down, complementing my figurative function as the engineer of a train barreling toward the end of the line. Bob believed I was from a far out planet, someone alien to his corporate world of spacious accommodations and plush decor. I trusted him, though. Bob Renwick was an honest man, always willing to listen. He was a banker, but talked like a human being. We were sitting in his corner office discussing a letter I wanted to send to Lawrence Fleischman, president of Kennedy Galleries. The letter was a legal necessity, required by the current contract between Brenda and the gallery, a notification of intent to end the agreement.

“Bob,” I said, “we have to send the letter.”

“I understand how you feel, Terry,” responded Bob. “But, don’t you think we should meet with Fleischman? He wants to discuss a new contract. We should listen to what he has to say.”

I agreed to go to New York, but wasn’t thrilled about attending a meeting with Lawrence Fleischman, unsure if I could hold back the words of contempt that needed to be expressed. Kennedy Galleries had represented the Estate of Walt Kuhn for more than a decade, and Fleischman considered himself a friend of Brenda Kuhn. I understood that Kennedy Galleries provided her with an income from the sale of Walt Kuhn artworks (after lopping off fifty percent for the gallery), but ignoring Brenda during the years she suffered from neglect and abuse was disgraceful, and getting paid for it was vile. I didn’t think it was right for Fleischman to have taken his cut off the top whilst Brenda lived at the bottom of the pile. Brenda’s life changed dramatically when I lost my temper in Maine, but I knew I had to keep my cool in New York. I promised to behave.

West 57th Street was crowded with people moving in packs along the sidewalks like automobiles on a busy Interstate, entering and exiting upscale shops and restaurants, deftly swerving to avoided bumping into wide-eyed visitors standing still amidst the rush. The neighborhood was tidy and clean. Business was booming. The pimps, prostitutes and drug users that infested other areas of the city were undetectable. The streets walkers in this area of New York flashed money, not thighs. A few pickpockets, though. did ply their trade in the corridors of high-rise buildings. They were the dealers on a dirty boulevard. Kennedy Galleries is located on West 57th Street.

Bob Renwick and I met with Lawrence Fleischman in his large, art-filled office deep in the bowels of the gallery. Fleischman sat behind a cluttered desk. He resembled Henry Kissinger, without the charm. Bob and I sat down in comfortable chairs. The desk and dealer sat atop an elevated platform, a perch that forced his visitors to look up to the icon of American art. Fleischman gazed briefly in my direction, then turned his attention to Bob the banker, asking the first question about the Estate of Walt Kuhn. Bob hesitated, then deferred to me. I was calm, unperturbed, never raising my voice in anger. I wanted answers from Lawrence Fleischman, not questions. For the next hour, I did the talking. Fleischman did not glance at Bob for the remainder of the meeting. The years spent studying the Walt Kuhn collection, the art market, and the man sitting in front of me were worth the effort. During previous negotiations Fleischman had rolled over the Estate representatives, but he didn’t know how to deal with a long-haired hippie who wasn’t horsing around. By the end of our discussion Fleischman accepted all of my demands, agreeing to a long-term contract with annual guarantees. We only haggled over the numbers.

“You did a good job,’ said Bob Renwick as we left the gallery. “I’m impressed.”

“Far out,” I said. “Thanks.”

Unfortunately, Fleischman wasn’t forced to sign on the dotted line when I painted him into a corner. Bob and I only had a verbal agreement when we left New York. Lawrence Fleischman’s subsequent actions didn’t match his words, and I wasn’t surprised (or worried) when he didn’t respond to several requests for a draft of the new deal. Fleischman’s delaying tactics provided me with the opportunity to continue talking with other art dealers and, as the deadline approached for sending the letter of intent, I met with the owners of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, a new art venture that just opened in New York. We had already held a few preliminary discussions about what would be included in a contract between Brenda Kuhn and the gallery. Larry Salander and Bill O’Reilly were young and enthusiastic, and excited about the possibility of representing the Estate. Walt Kuhn would be their star attraction.

Cutting Fleischman loose was risky, though. He was one of the most powerful art dealers in New York. In addition to his position as president of Kennedy Galleries, Fleischman helped create the Archives of American Art, and his many friends and clients throughout the United States were influential in the art world. The difference between Kennedy Galleries and Salander-O’Reilly Galleries was akin to the disparity of talent between Pablo Picasso and a university art professor: Fleischman knew how to sell major works of art, and Salander could talk about it, at length, at a very high decibel level. Nevertheless, a few months after the meeting with Fleischman, and only days before the deadline, I advised Brenda Kuhn to sever ties with Kennedy Galleries.

I telephoned Larry Salander and asked if he wanted to represent the Estate of Walt Kuhn. Larry’s answer was an emphatic “yes”.

I then spoke with Bob Renwick in Portland, Maine. “Bob,” I said. “Send the letter.”

One month later, Lawrence Fleischman and Kennedy Galleries no longer represented the Estate of Walt Kuhn. Brenda Kuhn signed a contract with Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, and the artworks located in Kennedy’s elegant space on West 57th Street were transferred to Salander’s shabby digs on the eastside of Manhattan. The stark dissimilarity in appearance of the two galleries didn’t bother me. I was more concerned with the addendum in the new contract relating to the value of the individual artworks. Larry Salander believed Kennedy Galleries had been selling Kuhn’s for less than their true worth, so he decided to raise all of the prices, sometimes by more than 100%. At first, I was thrilled when reading through the pages of listed paintings and drawings by Walt Kuhn, comparing Salander’s individual valuations to the old Kennedy inventory. All the new prices had a few extra zeroes attached. After adding things up, I was baffled, wondering whether Larry Salander was a fool, Lawrence Fleischman a crook, or if zeroes appended to zeroes equaled nothing.

Not all of Walt Kuhn’s artworks were assigned to a public gallery. Brenda Kuhn rented space in a secure, multi-storied industrial warehouse in New York where many artists and performers stored their possessions, including Mick Jagger and Robert DiNero, Sr. A few weeks after signing the contract with Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, I traveled to New York to show the contents of the storeroom to Larry Salander and Bill O’Reilly. We met in front of the warehouse, gained entry from an attendant, then walked through dusty hallways until we arrived at the door leading to Brenda’s private gallery. Inside the large room, scattered amidst an extensive cache of memorabilia, were hundreds of paintings, drawings, etchings, and other works of art by Walt Kuhn. Larry was like a happy rabbit on speed, bouncing from stacks of paintings, to portfolios of drawings, to works of art by other artists. He admired Walt Kuhn’s easels and oil-spattered palettes, and rummaged through a box of old framed photographs. Larry’s joy was genuine as he stood in the middle of a treasure trove of American art and history. We spent hours looking through the storeroom.

I needed to beat the rush hour traffic on my way back to Maine, so I had to leave. Larry and Bill said they wanted to stay. Without any hesitation, I agreed, telling Larry to lock up when finished, reminding him not to take away anything until given permission. I explained that everything stays in the storeroom until a complete inventory was accomplished. Larry and Bill needed to see everything in the Estate, but I wanted to take care that nothing was removed without my approval. I rode the elevator down to ground level of the warehouse, walked to the garage where my Buick was parked, paid the outrageous fee, then drove into the core of a Big Apple traffic jam. I inhaled noxious fumes as my vehicle crept behind cars, trucks, and taxis. The grid locked vehicles moved slowly, about a block in fifteen minutes. The pedestrians were much faster, making better progress than the swearing and sweating drivers. Confident, athletic women passed by my window, skirts blowing in the wind, reminding me of street scenes in Edward Hopper’s paintings. In the background of the imagined view, I noticed two men huddled together. One man was large, slovenly dressed, and energetic. He was holding a small framed photograph in his hands. The other man was much smaller, dapper, and stood still as he gazed at the old photograph, an object that, a few minutes earlier, had been in a box in the Walt Kuhn storeroom. The men walked away, moving at a quicker pace than the vehicles in the roadway. Larry Salander and Bill O’Reilly turned a corner and vanished.

Larry and Bill didn’t stay for very long after I left the warehouse, and the traffic delay made it possible for me to watch as they absconded with a small souvenir. I swore out loud, angry and upset. I couldn’t get out of my car and chase them on foot, so I drove away, slowly, from the scene of the crime. I had plenty of time to calm down, counting to ten, again and again. I crossed over a bridge, and sped north until I pulled over at a rest area alongside the highway. I found a pay telephone and placed a call to Bob Renwick in Portland, Maine. Trucks rumbled down the road, crunching gears as they passed near the telephone booth, but Bob heard me just fine over the long-distance telephone line.

“I want to go back and cancel the contract,” I yelled.

“Hold on, Terry,” said Bob Renwick. “Are you certain you saw them carrying stuff from the storeroom?”

“No doubt at all,” I responded.

Bob was careful with his words, not wanting to argue about what had transpired in New York. He was more concerned about what could happen if I acted imprudently. Bob reminded me of the recent removal of Kennedy Galleries as the Estate art dealer, a more serious matter than the taking of a small photograph. Dumping Salander-O’Reilly Galleries so soon, he said, could produce serious consequences. I might have problems getting another dealer to represent the Estate of Walt Kuhn. Brenda Kuhn’s income would be jeopardized if I reacted recklessly. Bob wanted me to ignore what had just happened, telling me to use the incident as a warning to be more cautious in the future. I hung up the telephone, got into my Buick and continued driving north, back to Maine.

I agreed to keep my mouth shut and my eyes wide open.

JAMES T. PHILLIPS was director of Cape Neddick Park until 1990, then began a career as a reporter and photojournalist in 1991. He has covered wars in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. His is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be contacted at jamestphillips@yahoo.com.

 

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